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Monday, 1 February 2010

The Way: Fighting and spirituality



We are all too familiar with the timeless image of the wise martial arts master. He seems to be completely at peace with himself, his foes and the world. Nothing can surprise, overwhelm or intimidate him. Pain is merely a state of mind and the only person who can truly defeat him, is himself. This is the picture we conjure up when we when we think of what a ‘spiritual’ warrior looks like (being of south-east Asian origin and having a long moustache helps too). It seems that in relation to fighting, this kind of thinking or outlook is now confined to the pages of ancient myths or the films of Ang Lee. However, the dimension of the spiritual has always been deeply woven into the fabric of the martial arts. It might be said that a martial artist who does not acknowledge the spiritual aspect of fighting is not truly a martial artist. Budō is the Japanese term used to describe the martial arts. If we break down the words meaning we see that Budō is a compound of the root bu, meaning war or martial; and dō, meaning path or way. So put simply it means ‘the way of war’. The concept of following a ‘way’ is not about adhering rigidly to a set of rules and techniques, but is instead about becoming a disciple of an art, allowing it to inform you in body, mind and spirit. This means that the martial art permeates into our lifestyles. In influences our mind-set, how we treat others and how we make our decisions and choices.

MMA in many ways has moved away from the ritualism and ceremony of the traditional martial arts. As we have ‘mixed’ the martial arts into a fast growing sport, we seem to have strained out the spiritual aspect of what it means to be a fighter. The underlying sentiment is that all that spiritual ‘mumbo-jumbo’ is just for people that like to make shapes in the air and breathe a lot.
Perhaps we are just a product of our generation? Our senses are relentlessly being bombarded by website pop-ups, i-phones apps and billboards that are constantly vying for our attention and eagerly waiting to fill us up with useless knowledge. We are constantly being filled up, but how shallow are our depths? The move into professional sport has certainly created unfamiliarity with the spiritual aspect of a fighter. If we look at the two main terms used to describe our wonderful sport, ‘Cage Fighting’ and ‘Mixed Martial Arts’. I think there is a distinct disparity between these terms. Fighter’s like Kenny Florian see it as an ‘art’ or a ‘way’ and view themselves as ‘mixed martial artists’. Other fighters see themselves as guys that like to fight in a cage, they want to ‘bank cheques and break necks’, they are ‘cage fighters’. I guess it really depends on your personal disposition, which term you prefer.

It seems that a large demographic of the modern breed of mixed martial artists are in it just for the pay day. They have no time or desire to’ find themselves’ or fight their inner-demons. They are too busy dismantling ground and pound dummies with their face disfiguring elbows or giving the finger to dissenting fans. This kind of outlook might well be epitomised best in fighter’s like Brock Lesnor. I mean I could be totally wrong. Brock Lesnor may well be a closet Zen Buddhist who burns incense and privately attributes his mighty hammer fists as a gift from Zeus. Who am I to judge? Another fighter seemingly in a similar vein is the UFC gravy train and king of the internet beat’em ups, Kimbo Slice. I simply could not imagine him saying a few prayers or meditating in his bedroom before heading out to the backyard to lay the concrete smack down on some overweight white dude with a mullet. However, in the recent series of TUF Kimbo Slice showed the world another side of himself. He once again reminded us all that none of us are fit to be both judge and jury over another man. In a to-camera reflection he talked about his real 'enemy' being 'the inner-me'. This was not only a clever play on words but an unexpected, poetic and spiritual self-reflection. Whilst this was a surprising admission from Kimbo, he is not alone in his spiritual quest. Many other fighters’ openly address the spiritual aspect of being a fighter in both their fight preparation and daily lives. Fighters like the previously mentioned Kenny Florian, current UFC Light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida and the more eccentric admissions of Diego Sanchez.

The term spiritual is hard to define. The dictionary entry for the word contains no less than twelve different definitions. This aptly demonstrates the mystery and fluidity of the word. A simple definition would be that it is that which is not physical or material. So when a fighter is looking to develop and nurture the spiritual aspect of them self they are often meaning their mental and emotional state. However, the concept of the spiritual goes even deeper than mind and emotions and extends to the foundation of ones identity and essence. Spirituality is derived from the Latin word spiritus, which means "breath of life." Many people see spirituality as a basis and purpose for living their life, it defines how they express themselves and forms the basis upon which they view life and interpret meaning. In the case of a fighter it helps them focus and prepare, to address their weaknesses and face both victory and defeat with equal reflection and respect.

You will hear a lot of fighter’s saying in pre-fight interviews that they are fully prepared in body, mind and spirit. This defines three layers to a human being and suggests that these layers need to be in harmony with each other in order to produce a healthy human being and a well rounded and complete mixed martial artist. Naturally people will be more inclined due to personality, upbringing and inclination to work on one area rather than the other. First let’s break down the three areas:

Body: Physical attributes and abilities

Mind: Reason, decision making and intellect

Spirit: Core identity, essence, purpose and belief


Each respective area influences how effectively the other one works. Some fighters have great physical and athletic attributes or ‘body’, but they lack the intelligence and decision making or ‘mind’ under pressure to capitalise on their physical superiority. It might be that they do not even particularly enjoy that aspect of the sport or feel naturally inclined to train it. This is why intelligent and experienced coaches are brought in to motivate them and develop game plans to increase a fighters understanding of strategy, mechanics and counters. Similarly a fighter might be highly intelligent and technical, but their physical ‘body’ is just not up to the riggers of pro-MMA. This is why conditioning and strength coaches are brought into to bring their body up to speed with their mind. On a spiritual level the fighter may have addressed his ego, doubts and weaknesses and be at peace with himself, the fight and his opponent. However, if he has not trained in the other two areas, that peace is going to come to a very violent end.

It is almost as if the Spirit or spiritual aspect of the fighter weaves everything together. It deals with who the fighter is as a person. I think it is naive to think we can completely separate who we are as people from who we are as fighters. Fighting is too close a reflection and metaphor for life to be something we can simply compartmentalise. “Spirituality is the basis for life; the way you move expresses who you are, how self disciplined and how strong a person you are. Life is the greatest fight. All those things such as children, education, women, death, illness, war, hatred, anger- all of these things are with us every single day of our lives. Most people tend to run away from these things only to be confronted with them again when they open their eyes”. (Les Allen, MMA Fighter). Some see the spiritual journey of a fighter, particularly those from eastern religions/philosophies as an internal battle with self. Overcoming that voice inside us that tells us to quit in the midst of struggle or have a prideful reaction to defeat. That is our ego, and a fighter must strive to confront it and constantly challenge it in order to grow in humility and evolve. If they can come to terms with who they are and the world they find themselves in, then they can be a more content and effective person and fighter.

Essentially it is about identity and finding peace with who you are. This is why many fighter’s meditate and embrace solitude, it creates a space for them to reflect and identify things they need to let go of or actively embrace. I think this is what Kimbo Slice was trying to express when he said he was fighting with the ‘inner-me’. He has had to deal with the media circus that has surrounded him his entire career. Self-inflicted or not this must wear on a man and make him question his validity and who he is. It is as if his time in the TUF house is making him confront the realities of his personality and of his skill set. As he comes to terms with both he will surely become a stronger man and fighter.

If we again look at the literal meaning of the word ‘spiritual’ we see that it is derived from the Latin word spiritus, meaning "breath of life." Whilst some people see spirituality as purely an interaction with self, some see it not only as this, but more significantly as an interaction with God or a higher force. They would consider the truest form of spirituality to be interaction with the one who breathed the ‘breath of life’. Often at the end of fights we see fighter’s thanking God or specifically Jesus, for their victories. Sometimes this is interpreted by fight fans as these fighters’s claiming God helped them directly to win the fight. In some senses they are, however, I do not think they mean that God told them to throw that punch at that very moment or sink that particular choke, like they are God’s little UFC puppets that he manipulates for the satisfaction of his wrath. I think the majority of fighters who openly proclaim a faith in a particular higher being or God see the role God plays as simply being a fountain from which they can draw peace, faith and a firm foundation upon which to build their identity. They still have to train hard, be gifted and outclass their opponent. They just identify a void within themselves that they believe cannot be filled no matter how much they search ‘within’. They need to trust in something that is greater than and ‘outside’ themselves. Prayer, reflecting on scripture and other religious rituals are perceived by onlookers as a fighter ‘doing religion’. However, for the ‘religious’ fighter these exercises are not meant to be the focus; they are merely meant to act as the bridge to the focus which is God.

There is a famous quote that say’s “In the ring, the truth will out”. In the case of MMA it is “In the cage, the truth will out”. What I think this quote means is that when we fight we expose a deep dimension of who we are. We leave ourselves open to scrutiny and disappointment; we make ourselves uniquely vulnerable. When you stand across the cage from an unknown opponent, someone you've never seen before, someone you have never sparred against. You have to confront your self-doubt, control your nerves, recollect what you have been drilling and learning and implement your game plan all at once. In those dying seconds when all the strength has left you, what will you draw upon to pull you across the finish line? Perhaps it is all just about mental strength and physical preparation, body and mind. Maybe all this discussion of the spiritual has no place within the dog-eat-dog world of MMA or the even modern world for that matter. Good riddance to the archaic philosophies of the traditional martial arts and all this talk of spiritual ‘ways’! Like they say, if the suit fits, wear it and if it doesn’t…well don’t. Just remember the cage, like life, is a deeply unforgiving place and if you are not prepared body, mind and… spirit? The truth will out.

By K.G McGlade

1 comment:

  1. I think I deny myself a lot when it comes to life. My fear, my insecurities, weakness all come out in waves. Yet I feel like the best of us have the skills to ride those waves to get where they want to go. Life is beautiful like that, because it gives you exactly what you need, it tells you where your weak and swallows you if refuse to face it. Every gift from god not taken becomes a curse that will haunt you. Thank you for this post, maybe not a lot of people will get it, but it speaks a special kind of truth.
    - Keep fighting

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